The only time I actually felt my pulse racing during Kelvin Tong’s The Maid was as Rosa Dimaano ran out of the shop house she had almost been hanged in, to save herself from being killed. While the plot was sufficiently engaging, it was disappointing to see the revelation of Esther Santos’ murder at the hands of the Teo family occur in the last 30 minutes of the film. I preferred Bong Joon-Ho’s more straightforward introduction of the monster within the first 15 minutes of having watched The Host.
By the time Esther’s murder had been revealed, Tong had already outlined a pessimistic status quo for migrant workers. The Maid follows the story of 18 year old Filipino domestic helper Rosa’s migration to Singapore to work for the brutally traditional Teo family. Their initially welcoming demeanor quickly changes to controlling and even abusive, as Mrs. Teo’s outburst reveals their true intentions – she is not even to speak with other people. She is objectified by the family and their friends. Rosa’s employment agency turns a blind eye to her plight, all the while as she encounters several ghosts, including that of Ah Soon, the mentally handicapped son of the Teos. It is left to her to discover Esther’s story and save herself from torture and murder.
She is lonely in her quest. Loneliness and alienation may very well be the film’s undercurrent, as the Teo family, and even Ah Soon are also lonely. Although the opening credits show a couple and their circle of Chinese Opera performer friends reveling in their traditional lifestyle, this may very well be a protectionist measure. The mise-en-scene of Rosa brushing her teeth next to a bucket of water, running through rooms with chipped walls, and washing clothes by hand are indicative of a sparsely furnished traditional shop house. Maybe the Teos adhere to traditional Chinese values and customs to avoid feeling lonely, which they would, as relatively under educated and impoverished Singaporeans in a rapidly urbanizing, technocratic city.
The Teos are not Singapore and Singapore is clearly not the Teos. Yet there is the zeitgeist of giving the collective more importance than the individual (so-called Asian values) and looking down on others based on their financial/educational status (class-ism). Mr. and Mrs. Teo and their circle of Mahjong-playing friends did not create these values, but do perpetuate them fastidiously, causing unspeakable damage to the unfortunate victims of these values. Rosa and Esther are both damaged by these values; seemingly harmless and intangible, but in reality very harmful. Mrs. Teo is also a victim of the zeitgeist; patriarchal family values forcing women to obey their husbands, no matter what. The image of one woman running after another, wielding a knife exemplifies Tong’s contrasting portrayal of the realities of women. One woman is compelled to follow her husband’s wishes, the other, the victim of a sociopath who just told his wife to kill her.
Tong uses the “civilized” ethnographer in Rosa to shed a light on the patriarchal, voyeuristic “male gaze” through her interactions with Mr. Teo and Ah Soon’s ghost. He also (without much success) attempts to use it to interpret the various encounters Rosa has with many ghosts. While I found the motif of the dark blue light endearing, it too, wasn’t very effective in creating a sense of tension before the appearance of a ghost. Instead, Tong’s brutal, yet honest depiction of the plight of women, workers, and the working class made this a worthwhile watch. I would not recommend this as a horror, but instead, as a guide to Singapore.
List of References:
- Joy T. Taylor, “‘‘Legend Has It … ’’: Imag(in)ing the Ethnographic Encounter in The Grudge and The Maid,” Visual Anthropology 27, (2014).